Toxic Pufferfish Invade Eastern Mediterranean, Killing People and Irking Fisherman

By Douglas Main | October 31, 2011 10:08 am

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the pufferfish has arrived. And nobody’s too happy about it. The fish, also known as the silverstripe blaasop or Lagocephalus sceleratus, was first confirmed in Turkey in 2003 and has been spreading throughout the area. The problem with this unassuming fellow is that it contains tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that can be deadly to humans and for which there is no known antidote. Consumption of the fish has killed at least 7 people in Lebanon in the past few years, according to The Daily Star, and likely affected many more. A 2008 study found that 13 Israeli patients who ate the blaasop had to receive emergency medical attention at the hospital, where they didn’t recover for four days.

Besides being poisonous the pufferfish is also strong and has a sharp beak that allows it to cut through fishermen’s nets. The fish is native to the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and lives in the Red Sea, from which it likely migrated through the Suez Canal. As of 2005, there were as many as 745 exotic species in the Mediterranean, many of which likely arrived via the same route.

Despite being poisonous, pufferfish is eaten in Japan and known as fugu, although it must be prepared by specially trained chefs to remove the toxin-containing components. A recent meeting of fisheries officials in Lebanon suggested hiring a consultant to train chefs to prepare the fish, although Lebanon’s head of Fishery and Wildlife is not too keen on the idea. Officials are considering ideas to control the fish’s spread, such as paying fisherman to catch it. In the meantime, fishermen stab the puffer and throw it back into the water.

Tetrodotoxin is extremely potent and can cause death by paralysis. It works by blocking sodium channels, which are necessary for the contraction of muscles like the diaphragm that control breathing. Symptoms usually appear within 30 minutes, although consuming a pufferfish once killed somebody within 17 minutes. If you make it for more than 24 hours, you are likely to survive the ordeal, although you can remain in a state of near-death for days. For this reason tetrodotoxin is sometimes called “zombie powder,” and according to Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis is a prime ingredient in Haitian voodoo use to turn people into zombies.

[Via Lebanon’s The Daily Star]

Image credit: Johnny Jensen 

  • John Kwok

    I am actually surprised that the pupperfish hasn’t been sighted earlier, since the Suez Canal was completed around 1869.

  • Chris the Canadian

    They are slow little swimmers. Took them a long while to get through. Anyone ever hear of CATCH AND RELEASE???? Every fish caught MUST be eaten. Ridiculous.

  • guineapigdude

    @ number 2, Chris the Canadian.

    These fish are an invasive species, and highly toxic, i assume that you were joking, but, well this is the internet.
    in addition, they are highly toxic to humans, and can only be eaten by specially trained chefs, and even then can still kill if there was a mistake.

  • James (a Christian)

    I think the issue may also be when you grab all the random fish and then blend them together to make “fish sticks” or other types of fish meal and then the toxin is in the meal and gets eaten by humans.

  • agreeswithguineapigdude

    I agree with gpd. these fish are highly toxic. The people living in the surrounding areas should be educated about this fish. It would save many lives.

  • Gayanne

    Puffer fish have moved north… My son was with friends fishing near Dubrovnik on the 22nd of September, 2012. They caught a fish they had never seen before. After sending a picture of the fish to friends and other fishermen, nobody knew what it was so they assumed it was edible. Just as they were about to light the grill, a friend called back in panic to tell them that they had caught a 2.5 kg Sphoeroides pachygaster.


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